Thursday, May 13, 2010

Why the Ending is really the hardest part; or where did Amelia Earhart disappear to?

Mystery readers expect tidy solutions. When I wrote mysteries I delivered as best I could. Although I would term my mysteries quirky, they still followed the guidelines. The puzzle was set, the detective, or in this case two detectives followed the disparate leads, and eventually the solution presented itself. They and the reader could breathe a sigh of relief, all was right in the world once again. There's a comfort to that. Life presents no such comfort. Our endings are messier, or open ended. Our lives unravel slowly or quickly, or in ways we don't see, or can't afterward define. Amelia disappeared on her way home. She was there, and then she was gone. For years, the mystery has endured. Presenting a solution to it, means giving her an ending. Personally I find the ending of her life not nearly as interesting as the journey she took to get there. But as a writer, I know I am defined by endings.

Recently I read a novel that began with great promise, I couldn't put it down. But by the time I finished it I was annoyed, and then dismissive. A few weeks later, asked about what I'd read recently I couldn't even remember the title or what the book was about. That's how disappointing the ending was. Looking back I realize how unfair that is, the writer presented really beautifully drawn characters. She had me with her much of the way. But by the time I reached the end, I was so disappointed I rejected all the rest of her hard work. I forgot her talent.

What is it about endings that matters so much? We don't live our lives in thrall to them. We live them minute by minute, or hour by hour, or day by day. Yet when we read we require an answer to the questions that we refuse to ask ourselves. We want the ending to satisfy us, we want it to deliver in ways that life rarely does. As a writer it's a daunting task, but also a fair one.

Recently, doing research I came upon a letter Muriel had written to Eleanor Roosevelt asking for more information about one of the theories. In brief Eleanor assured her that she knew nothing of Amelia being sent on a spying mission by FDR. Muriel was later quoted as saying, she was certain her sister had crashed and died.

Those who remain fascinated with Amelia Earhart's final hours are solving a puzzle. They are much like those who write mysteries, myself included, and wish for a tidy ending. Not a happy one, obviously, but one that satisfies the strictures of the genre. Lots of red herrings are strewn, but there's only one real solution. I prefer to think about Amelia differently and in writing about her I have chosen a different sort of solution for her. If it works, then it mirrors life in all its untidy glory.


  1. Re forgetting about a person's hard work and talents after a disappointing ending, pilots are among the worst offenders. We harshly judge other pilots, telling ourselves that it's necessary to learn from others' mistakes. But all too often what we're really doing, I think, is exaggerating the other pilot's mistakes in order to distance ourselves from them. "I would never do that!" and "That would never happen to me!" are useful mental defenses that allow us to keep flying in cognitive comfort.

  2. "Life in all its untidy glory"- this is a great description. "Untidy glory" is a bit of an oxymoron, but then maybe not. Maybe neatness and formulaic plot structures can become drab, while the messy mystery of life has the resonance of true glory. Thank you for this post with its many fertile reflections.

    mkendrick I love your observation that our mental defenses allow us to keep flying in cognitive comfort.

  3. Thanks Colleen. In flying, as in life, it's often better to be uncomfortable.

  4. And I'm glad for the discomfort, especially if it keeps that pilot on their toes! Such interesting responses. I do wonder at how critical other pilots are of Amelia, as we've discussed before. But then writers are always savaging each others work. I did it in the above post, but at least I didn't name names.

  5. I think Gore Vidal said every time another writer gets a good review, a little piece of him dies. :)

  6. Sounds like Gore all right. Sadly, pretty darn true. Although I do try my best to be supportive and generous, even when it hurts.